Child Poverty Collaborative

My friend Sharron invited me to attend a public forum last week to learn more about the The Child Poverty Collaborative.  The group aims to reduce child poverty in the Cincinnati region for 10,000 kids and 5,000 families–within the next five years.

I was rather surprised to find the United Way of Greater Cincinnati parking lot packed when I arrived.  And I mean really, really packed….including side streets, “not really” parking places, and some pretty imaginative solutions!

The meeting room was also full in the best meaning of the word.  Full of diversity, full of all ages, full of smiles and humor, full of people who knew and liked one another and embraced warmly.  This was community!  No strangers here, not even me with my “I don’t know anyone” face on.  My neighbor next to me introduced herself and started to talk about work she is doing with low-income at-risk high schoolers to help them succeed in high school and college by assisting them in overcoming barriers.  She spoke about the wins–nearly 60 kids each year being helped–and the losses.

“I had this one young woman.  Oh, so much potential, so eager to learn and to grow and to contribute.  Then she just stopped coming to school.  No word, no reason, and no way to get in touch with her.  We asked other students about her and finally we got a work address.  So, I went there and found her.  She is working full time now.  With her Mom disabled and no other support or income in their home, her Mom begged her to quit school and go to work.  Of course, she was only sixteen so she had fake ID.  Her employer had no idea she wasn’t 18.  And no matter that she was clearly torn–she just wasn’t going to go back to school, not when her Mom needed her help.  It was heartbreaking.”

A room full of these passionate and committed people.  Can you imagine?

Impacting something as insidious, continuous and ugly as childhood poverty doesn’t just take heart.  Anyone tackling the wicked problems in our society knows the balancing act we have to do to create a framework for change.  Bring together key stakeholders.  Build consensus.  Identify the behaviors we are trying to change, the determinants of those behaviors, the goals we want to set, and the interventions–evidence-based practices–that will achieve those goals.

No indeed.  This was taking a combination of organization, keen intellect, shared leadership–and a dose of raw courage.

The statistics we face here are daunting.  70% of African American kids in Cincinnati live in poverty.  Looking more broadly, one third of the children in Hamilton County live in poverty as well.

The work is being facilitated by United Way of Greater Cincinnati, and led by two extraordinary women: Lynn Marmer, a recently retired executive from the Kroger Company, and Donna Jones Baker, President and CEO of the Urban League of Southwestern Ohio.

Planning for this work started in 2015 but is being built on earlier efforts.  And in their first week of fundraising they raised one million dollars.

And if their efforts to get going on “doing SOMETHING” are a bit slower than what they would like, they can certainly be excused.

“We are not going to plug solutions into an action plan and then say ‘go forth and do this'” Marmer said.  “We will provide a model with recommendations, implement, evaluate and tweak as we need to.  This will be an iterative process.  And we will be looking at the outcomes of the actions we take to hold us all accountable to our goals.”

The Forum today was focused on learning from Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution.  He looked at national determinants of childhood poverty and their increasing impact over several decades.  This included a marked decline in marriage and concomitant increase in single family households.  Low employment rates for African American men in their twenties.  The strong correlation between highest level of education achieved and future earnings.

The Brookings Institution is encouraging four interventions:

  1. Promoting marriage as the most reliable route to stable families;
  2. Promoting delayed, responsible childbearing;
  3. Addressing social capacity for family stability, such as teaching parenting skills;
  4. Promoting that skill development and capacity among young men as well as young women.

These were presented as suggestions.  Each community needs to discover and validate not only which social determinants are at work locally, but also which solutions and ideas have the highest likelihood of success.  If the logic models and collaborative approach is the science of social change, this is the art.

So–heart, intellect, working hands and feet, creativity, determination, all in one room.  If there was strength in each individual present, there was an abundance of capacity in the collective.

I will watch and talk about this group again.  But you know–I believe I am going to place my bets right now.

Laura’s Story

Yesterday, I invited some of my closest friends to tell me about people in service to others who had, in turn, inspired them.  Laura wrote back: “What does it say about me that not a single inspirational person or story popped in my head after I read your post?  People I admire, sure. people I respect, of course. But someone who has inspired me with their service? The tough word is ‘inspired’. I have interacted with many, many folks who live their lives in meaningful, important and productive ways, often in service to others. I can’t think of any one of them who, because of what they did, caused me to do or want to do something myself.”
I decided Laura needed to hear her own story.

I met my dear friend Laura in college.  At just over six feet tall, with beautiful red hair and bright blue eyes, Laura always knew how to capture attention!  My earliest memory of her was to think “now here is someone who totally fills the room with her presence.”

 

We laughed, cried, fought, supported one another and sang our way into a friendship too deep for the years to diminish–they only add the beautiful patina of time.
When Laura was in her twenties, she was playing tennis and tripped.  Her step-father looked on in horror as she fell straight into the pavement, head on, without any instinctive move to catch herself.  The saying “falling flat on her face” was exactly what happened.  She went through a barrage of tests to determine why she did not have the instinct to catch herself.  The diagnosis was told to her over the phone while she was at work.  “yeah….you have MS.”
I honestly have never heard her complain.  Not when she asked me if the bridesmaids at Marc’s and my wedding could sit down during the service.  Not during her own wedding.  Not in the weeks and months and years when she progressively got worse until she was no longer able to walk or provide her own daily grooming.
Many years ago, Laura went out west with her family to go skiing.  She accompanied them to the slopes to see them off and was ready to turn back when someone said to her: “Don’t you want to go too?”  Not knowing if the question was a cruel jest or something resembling the worst kind of stupidity she replied that she was unable to do so.
“I can take you.  You can ski too.”
The words came from one of the ski instructors.  After some conversation and a gradual lowering of her trepidation, they strapped her onto the sit-ski and guided her down the hill.
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She said, “For the first time in longer than I could even remember, I was free.  It was the most amazing feeling.”
For Laura, the glory of that run, of that moment, could have easily led to frequent vacations to the slopes to repeat the experience.  As she told me about the experience, though, her thoughts were not on her own freedom.  Her entire focus was on how many children in the world are limited by chronic illness or trauma that keeps them from being free.  “I want to help sick kids get that same feeling of freedom that I had.”
See, this is where it becomes confusing.  I asked Laura what caused her to think about doing something for kids rather than just skiing for herself.  Laura is an incredibly forthright woman.  She is also very logical, and walked through her thinking.  “My first thought was to establish a skiing experience for kids out west.  But, I had more contacts for fundraising back in Philadelphia, so we went that route and turned it into a camp idea.”
“But Laura….why?  Why not just ski and enjoy your own personal freedom?”
“It was just something I could do.  Now that I think about it, I don’t think I really ‘got it’ until after our first session when I got my first taste of the magic that is Dragonfly, not only for the campers, but also for their parents, their families, and our staff.  I knew Dragonfly was going to change our campers’ and even their families’ lives but it never dawned on me that working at Dragonfly would profoundly affect so many of our counselor’s lives.”
Changing these lives became Laura’s mantra.
Laura established her camp in Philadelphia for just that purpose.  Dragonfly Forest was incorporated in 2001 and provides overnight camping experiences for kids with autism and other special needs.  They served their first group of kids in 2006 and haven’t stopped since then.  Laura was the “Chief Bottle Washer” at the start of it, serving as CEO and later becoming Chair of its Board.  The camp now has year-round programming and has moved several times to accommodate its rapid growth.
Several years ago, Laura made the difficult decision to step down from day to day responsibilities for Dragonfly.  She told me that she had planted the seed and given it a strong start but it was the time for new energy and ideas.  She wanted it to succeed on its own.  And so it has.  Impressively so, in growth and programming.  But that isn’t the most important way.  It is the face of every kid who felt limited by life until they experienced that magic of Dragonfly.  And the kids today don’t realize that the magic of Dragonfly is my Laura’s giving heart.
Thank you, Laura!
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The Starting Point

When I was seven years old, my grandmother gave me a children’s biography about Jane Addams, an early twentieth century social activist, writer, women’s suffragist, and philanthropist.  Like me, Jane came from an upper middle class family.  Like me, she grew up feeling awkward and out of place in many ways.  Her first view of tenement housing in Chicago became her personal call to serve people who were less fortunate than she.  Ultimately, she used her inheritance to open Hull-House on the southwest side of Chicago.  The once mansion of Charles J. Hull became a settlement for immigrants, for the poor and needy.  Jane and her friend Ellen Gates Starr created an intergenerational environment which provided a vital oasis for socialization, day care, play, and employment services.  Eventually her work impacted public policy on how we address the poor and under-served in our country.  Jane’s lifelong dedication to public service led to her being named as the first American woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931.

I have often wondered why my grandmother gave me this book.  Coming from a very conservative family in a much more conservative generation than today, I cannot imagine that my Namma would have embraced Jane’s forward-thinking views!  Perhaps she simply saw the book on sale and picked it up because she knew I liked to read.  Or perhaps she saw something in me, even at that young age–the beginnings of a giving heart.

As much as I vowed to live a life of service to others, a child’s simple dreams can so often be replaced by the practicalities of our lives!  The act of service can easily be lost in the day to day act of simply growing up.  “Get a job, get married, have children, raise them to be upstanding citizens.”  These mantras can become conscripts for how we manage our lives.  They come from the generation before us, from society, from our own personal motivations–and at the most basic, from our DNA linked to survival.  Food, water, shelter.  Check.

Yet, there are people like Jane Addams whose call to service is as deeply embedded within their hearts as those most basic human needs.  What is it that ignites them?  How do they use that fire to galvanize positive change in the world, so that the world we nurture is all the better for their presence?

I have met so many of these people–and so have you.  In a time when we are questioning our own values as Americans, in a time when we no longer lift up these beautiful spirits among us but focus on “getting ahead”, we need these people more than ever.  They are the angels in our lives and in our world, and their stories need to be told.  The very telling can ignite all of us to use the gifts we have been given to give back.

As I can, I am going to start to tell these stories.  As you can, please let me know of the people in your life and your community who live through giving hearts.  Each of the stories told will add a new thread to a tapestry of service.  Each of them will lift up and touch the core of what is the best of us.